Sunday, June 8, 2008

When Learning A Language Is Tough on A Mission

When I was called on an Italian speaking mission I remember how tough it was to master the language in the three months we were in the LTM (now MTC). Our two teacher Gianni Tata and Cinzia Donatelli Noble worked hard with us to help us master basic concepts. I really struggled with the language. I had an advantage having studied Spanish but it messed me up as I would use a Spanish word sometimes instead of an Italian word.

When I arrived in Italy I was sent down to Ragusa which had just opened up to be companions with Giogio dal Pozzo. He was a native Italian from Verona. He didn't speak a word of English so I was immersed in to the language. We led the mission in my first five months in all categories. I was able to pass off the baptismal challenge and a couple of discussions.

As a child growing up I frequently visited my grandmother Genevieve Gaita Bruno Mauro. She had married her cousin's husband when she died after my grandfather Frank Bruno died at 53. Carlo Mauro was from Castelladacci and spoke limited English. They spoke a like dis in English so they usually only spoke Italian. Once or twice a week I would force my way in as he disliked my father but she wanted to see us so I heard Italian hundreds of times. He would speak to me and cuss at me and say other rude things about my father always in Italian. So from the age of two until twelve I was exposed to Italian.

On my mission I had a most remarkable experience. One night I went to sleep. I have always dreamed in vivid technicolor. My dream was me speaking in Italian and the whole dream was in Italian. When I woke up the next morning I not only could understand Italian but I could speak it. The Italians were so tickled by how I spoke they said you must be a Todesco because no Americani could speak so well. I had conversations with guys like Salvatore Parisi who was a philosophy professor on topics like the beasts in Revelation. Even though I never mastered any complex verbs I could hold my own. In fact when I got on the plane to go to Canada where I was transferred after seven months President Leopoldo Larcher told me it is a shame I was going to make you one of my assistants.

Heber J. Grant in October 1903 reported his mission to Japan at the General Conference was quite so easy as mine. He discussed the difficulty of learning the Japanese language for himself and his wife. It seems like younger people have an easier time. It is amazing in my wife's mission in Quebec Canada that children can fluently switch between English, French and Vietnamese or Spanish depending on their ethnic backgrounds. President Grant said:

"In Japan we have many warm friends; and we rejoice to know that our Elders are all doing very well indeed; and the two sisters there have an excellent spirit. There was a dozen of us there, and I do not believe I ever was associated with the same number of brethren and sisters, for the same length of time, whom I loved any dearer. They are very choice. Of course, they are young and inexperienced, but the Lord is blessing them, and the younger ones are learning the language very rapidly. I am well satisfied with the progress they are making. Brother Ensign, I feel, will be able to take charge of the affairs of that mission just as well as I could possibly do if I had remained. He has had missionary experience; he loves the work of the Lord, and he would be ready and willing, if need be, to give his life for the cause, and that is all any man can do. He has found it difficult to learn that language, and once or twice has been a little discouraged. I do not blame him for this. We all get discouraged at times; but if we repent of our discouragement, and labor with increased zeal, the Lord never holds anything of that kind against us, neither do our brethren. One reason perhaps why Brother Ensign got a bit discouraged at times was, I think, because he had had such an active, energetic life as a missionary in Colorado. There he was at it early and late, singing, praying and preaching, outdoors and indoors; then to go over to Japan, sit down and study what people call "that abominable language" day after day, with nothing else to do-well, I tell you it takes a whole lot more courage and endurance than it does to get out and do active work. It tests a man more than it does to labor. It does not require much courage for a man to knock another down who hits him; but it takes a great deal of courage to take it without hitting back. It becomes monotonous to do nothing. Lots of men are first class in a fight, but of no account to guard. Brother Ensign is laboring faithfully and diligently, and the Lord is blessing him. All the Elders there love him, and he has sufficient wisdom, and enough of the Spirit of the Lord, to preside there successfully. . . .

Brother Taylor has done remarkably well. The Lord has blessed him abundantly. He has studied diligently, and he is a wonderfully intelligent, bright young man. Contrary to the usual effect, when the Lord has endowed a young man with remarkable ability, instead of his head swelling, and his thinking he knows everything, he is just as humble and modest as he is bright. I have never been associated with a more diligent, energetic, faithful young man in all my life. He is an honor to his parents, and to the work of God; and as sure as he lives, he will become an instrument in the hands of God of accomplishing a great and noble work. The five young men who went with me later have all been diligent. Some of them have found it easier to learn the language than others. They are all choice spirits and are progressing constantly. Those who have found it most difficult to learn the language have been the most abundantly blessed by our Heavenly Father. They have been diligent, and the Lord has seemed to make up to them what they lacked in learning readily. Those who have found it most difficult to talk Japanese, on several occasions, when they have been explaining the principles of the Gospel, the Lord has given them words to speak, and they have been enabled to talk beyond their knowledge of the language. We have rejoiced in this additional testimony of God's goodness unto us. The two sisters who are there have done remarkably well. My wife found it very difficult to learn the language, being more advanced in years than the other sisters. She learned it much better than I did, however; still it was a hard task for her. My daughter found it easier; and really I regretted exceedingly to come home on her account; for she was getting the missionary spirit; she was able to bear testimony, and did it humbly, and with the blessing of God. I felt that, if she could stay there a few more months, God would give her an increased testimony, and power and ability to do a remarkable labor in that land. I was sad to bring her home, because I felt she was gaining an experience, in her childhood, that would be of very great value to her."

One thing I learned on a mission is that the only way to learn is by speaking. You need to overcome your fear. People will get the idea you are trying to convey and overlook your mistakes. In addition they will correct you and try to help you. It actually gives a missionary a chance to teach them. You can tell them you need to practice your Italian and ask them to speak to you.

One thing I always carried with me in my inside suit pocket was a basic conversation book and my Italian 1001 verbs. I also carried my discussions for you today it would be the Preach My Gospel manual. One time I was transferred to Canada and I was the only foreign speaking Elder I opened my discussions and just paraphrased them for a Spanish speaker and for an Italian girl. We understood each other perfectly well. You need to seek out opportunities to speak the language I never spoke to a companion ever in English. One time in Catannia we went to the Navy base I noticed my companion would try to gravitate there because he wanted to hear his native lingo. I think unless there are contacts there it is counterproductive. The best way to learn is by doing.

One time my companion Giorgio Dal Pozzo got some money from his sister. He offered to buy me anything I wanted including a Lamborghini after our missions. He lent me his favorite coat which I eventually returned. I told him I wanted some kid's Italian word books. I spent every day looking at objects like flashlights etc. It really improved my ability to speak the language. It is not rocket science you are dealing with as a missionary but just every day things such as finding out about the people you teach and your specialized vocabulary involves things such as prayer, blessing of the sacrament, explaining the Bible and Book of Mormon and the missionary topics. If you want to be a top notch speaker you can always perfect the language after your mission by going to BYU and taking Professor Noble's classes or going back as a study abroad students to fill in the gaps about art, music, and popular culture.

I remember how fatiguing it was to learn Italian. My brain was usually frazzled by the end of the day for the first three months. You need to have small rewards like going out for a Swiss chocolate bar or visiting a Church to relieve the stress. Try standing on your head it does wonders to get the blood to your brain. One of my all time favorite things to do in Italian was to sing funny little songs.

When we were in the LTM before the MTC we had to go about a mile to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our district leader was a guy named Elder Bachelor from Great Britain. Like a drill sargent we would count off in Italian. The next week we would learn to sing Zipidity Doo Da or Volare. It really was a blast. I learned a few hymns a long the way that I can still sing today.

The major thing I have to say is to never give up. I don't care if it takes you a year to learn. You can still be a successfully missionary even if you struggle. No one ever feels like they have completely learned a language even the professors. Remember that learning a language or any subject is a lifelong pursuit. A sad thing I see is when a missionary comes home and doesn't keep up their language skills. My wife has this problem. She studied French for four years and had a fairly successful mission. After her mission she never spoke French. From time to time she runs in to someone who likes to speak French but she sadly says she just can't any more. I on the other hand go in to an Italian bakery or restaurant and proceed to speak. I don't care if it is correct or not I still manage to get what I want and then I remember that time in Italy or Toronto with Elder or Sister So and So. Hang in there and relax maybe you will one day dream in Italian in technicolor too. I just hope it's not like Fellini's 8 1/2.

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